Today I am talking with Dr. Tojo Thatchenkery, professor of organizational learning at George Mason University and author of the new book Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn. Tojo, thanks very much for agreeing to participate in my series of interviews of thinkers and practitioners who have ideas that are valuable for the legal profession. Carol Metzker, the co-author of your new book, was interviewed here a few months ago. I am grateful to be able to hear the thoughts of each of you on how appreciative intelligence applies to lawyers.
In November, you and I met with Mark Beese and Julie Fleming Brown. I want to start this interview by asking you to explain two concepts you described at the get-together: opportunity recognition and entrepreneurial cognition. As we discussed, entrepreneurial skills are often important and beneficial for lawyers. What are these concepts and how do they relate to appreciative intelligence?
Thank you, Stephanie. Opportunity recognition is the core of entrepreneurship. The common definition of entrepreneurship says that it involves recognizing an opportunity to create something new. This "new" is defined very broadly- creating new products or services, identifying a new market or niche, or a new way of improving production or quality- all these may come under the "new." According to professors Robert Baron and Scott Shane, "opportunity" in the entrepreneurial context is the potential to create something new because changes in the environment- social, economic, political, or cultural- have created a fertile climate for it. Someone must recognize it. That's all.
But not everyone has the capacity to recognize the gradual or sudden emergence of these opportunities. The question then is why do some entrepreneurs (but not others) recognize opportunities for new products and/or services that are eventually brought to market successfully? In other words, why are some entrepreneurs more successful than others?
This is where I believe appreciative intelligence comes in. University of Victoria researcher Ron Mitchell and team have shown that entrepreneurs think differently, both with respect to the content of their thoughts and the processes they employ. Another researcher Norris Krueger has looked at entrepreneurial intentions, the cognitive state that precedes the decision to act. A successful entrepreneur is able to recognize emerging opportunities because she is processing information differently than most other people. She thinks outside the box, which takes me to the concept of entrepreneurial cognition. So you can see that the two concepts are inter-related.
My research on appreciative intelligence has shown that the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs thought differently by intentionally reframing market signs and opportunities. As you know, the ability to reframe is an important aspect of appreciative intelligence. So what I am doing is a making a link between entrepreneurial cognition and opportunity recognition.
Researchers have been trying to identify the cognitive variables behind opportunity recognition. Ron Mitchell who I mentioned earlier had focused on the specific cognitions demonstrated by entrepreneurs and saw evidences of them possessing better developed cognitive scripts for various business development and execution contexts. The Indian American IT entrepreneurs I had studied showed a great deal of persistence and conviction that their actions mattered. They also showed a high degree of comfort with ambiguity or uncertainty and had irrepressible resilience, all qualities described in the book Appreciative Intelligence you have referred in your question.
Appreciative intelligence has three components: the ability to reframe, to appreciate the positive, and to see how the future unfolds from the present. The last one is closely linked to cognition. My hunch is that people with higher appreciative intelligence will have different types of social cognitions than people with a lower level of it. Stated differently, the presence of appreciative intelligence may be a contributing factor behind the sharp or enhanced state of entrepreneurial cognitions which in turn allow successful entrepreneurs to recognize opportunities.
Let me pause here and ask you if I have adequately responded to your question.
Yes, you have. Very, very intriguing, Tojo. Thank you. I want to look at the other end of the continuum to satisfy my curiosity and that of some readers. Is there something akin to depreciative intelligence? The ability to see what is wrong with a situation or what could go wrong? I ask because the ability to foresee all the possible problems is a skill we as lawyers must have. How would that relate to appreciative intelligence? Can they co-exist? I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.
I know I jokingly suggested a depreciative intelligence (DI) during our last meeting! Within the intelligence literature, pattern recognition is seen an important aspect of general intelligence (what we call the IQ). Ability to recognize what could go wrong is a type of pattern recognition a lawyer may develop after years of practice. They could anticipate how various legal strategies may unfold or play out, then connect the dots and predict what might go wrong. We don't have enough evidence to suggest that this would be a new type of intelligence.
Secondly, it is not the figure-out-what's-wrong ability that eventually helps lawyers succeed. Once they know what might go wrong, they need to figure out what might go right. A lawyer is focused on winning the case, not losing it. So, I would argue that sorting out what could go wrong is a step before determining what might go right. It is a healthy step one or prerequisite. But, a lawyer with an ability for out-shining others in step one only won't succeed in the long run.
If there were a test for "depreciative intelligence," most lawyers will do well since this is a required ability and often the most commonly used. It will be tough to be a lawyer without it, just like it will be hard to be a medical doctor if you don't have the ability to diagnose a patient. But what makes great doctors is not normally the ability for diagnosis but prognosis. Can a doctor identify the right treatment regime so that he or she can create a process of recovery and healing for the patient? I think lawyers are similar in that respect. What makes great lawyers is the ability to recognize new legal strategies or reframe existing ones, and learn how the future unfolds from the present-, all elements of appreciative intelligence.
In short, I recognize the importance of figuring out what may go wrong but believe that the more important next step of identifying what will go right is what may help lawyers succeed.
Thank you, Tojo. You are saying that the real leaders, the people who are most successful, balance the knowledge of what can go wrong with the idea of potential or what can go right. Maybe more than balance: the idea of the potential is paramount and the predictions about what can go wrong are a subset of the potential. One serves the other.
I would imagine a lawyer can begin to create more Appreciative Intelligence by considering each case with a deliberate inventory of what could go wrong AND what could go right. The more he or she does this the more the Appreciative Intelligence will grow until it becomes second nature. I know your book has tips for increasing AI. Can you tell us another method that readers could immediately use?
Yes, Stephanie, you have nicely paraphrased what I meant. One serves the other. Regarding your question, you are right, we have tips in the book about how new abilities are developed and how they become second nature, moving from a stage of unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. Another method I would recommend to a lawyer-audience is to practise climbing multiple ladders of inference. Let me explain. You had earlier mentioned the importance of the ability to identify what could go wrong. How does a lawyer do that? They make assumptions. Once they make one, it has its own trajectory prompting the person to make a series (like climbing a ladder) of inferences, one leading to the next. Very soon, the person has reached the top of the ladder from where he or she must act.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said that we are all caught in some form of self-referentiality. What he meant was that there are assumptions behind assumptions but often our awareness prompts us to make the most convenient assumptions. Almost like following the path of least resistance. Once an assumption is made, whatever we can discover or learn is limited by its boundaries.
What if a lawyer intentionally steps out of the most commonly used assumptions, reframe the case data, and climb a different type of ladder of inference? Most likely, the case strategy will be different. The lawyer in this case is appreciating or valuing different types of meaning making thereby opening up new possibilities for arguing the case. Appreciative intelligence here is the ability to climb the affirmative ladders with an open mind.
This is probably a longer answer than what you may have wanted. Bottom line: Control your urge to use the same type of inferences and practice starting with different assumptions than what you are used to.
Not too long at all! Very helpful and well worth heeding. Tojo, I want to conclude this interview by returning to the theme of lawyers and appreciative intelligence or lack of it. I have seen studies suggesting successful lawyers are more pessimistic than optimistic. Can you comment on that?
You are right that some authors have focused on this issue. As you know, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman distinguished between the “explanatory styles” behind pessimism and optimism. A pessimistic explanatory style is the tendency to attribute causality and durability to unpleasant events and assume that they will stay that way. People with high pessimistic explanatory style may feel that everything that can wrong will (go wrong) and that they are mostly to blame for them.
The reverse optimistic explanatory style is less hard on the individual and encourages one to think of the challenging situation only as temporary in nature. People in this mode are more predisposed to anticipate more generative outcomes from situations partly because they believe that they have some power to change the situation. Hundreds of studies have shown that pessimistic attitude or explanatory styles are significant roadblocks in professional and personal growth. Naturally, the question arose for those in legal field: What about lawyers? Are the good ones more pessimistic or optimistic?
A study published ten years ago (by Jason Satterfield, John Monahan & Martin Seligman) described testing the entering class for the University of Virginia School of Law with the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ), the most commonly used self-report measure of explanatory styles. Contrary to the general expectation, law students with "pessimistic" attributional or explanatory styles did better on traditional measures of achievement such as GPA than those with optimistic styles.
This one study has been quoted in several places. I would caution against drawing a conclusion from one study that for lawyers pessimism is good. The evidence to the contrary is more convincing to me. Also, there is yet no study suggesting that the pessimistic explanatory style translates to success at the law firm, even if it did in school.
Even then, the question whether lawyers are less predisposed for demonstrating appreciative intelligence is a good one. A good lawyer should exercise caution and consider the multitude of ways that his or her approach could be countered by the one on the other side. It is also a zero-sum game, mostly. You win or lose. But even that approach is changing.
When you bring your car to a mechanic for a check-up before a long road-trip, he is supposed to think about what might go wrong. Are your tires good enough for the snow-covered highways of Colorado? Are the break-shoe pads worn out? How long they may last? Clearly, the mechanic is anticipating all scenarios that could go wrong? At the same time, he may also comment that you have got a nice car. He notices that it has got not only front and side airbags but also shoulder ones, that it has traction control and a myriad of other safety features. In this case, the mechanic is simultaneously noticing what is good and what can go wrong.
I believe that a lawyer is engaged in similar balancing acts. She notices what are the “positives” in a case, such as solid evidences and willing witnesses, but at the same time wondering what could go wrong. Such a balanced outlook makes her a good lawyer. She is neither a pessimist nor an optimist.
There are historical and institutional reasons behind the thinking that lawyers need to be pessimists. Legal scholars point out that the American system of law is based on the adversary process or what economists would call the zero-sum game. You can either win or lose. Even that paradigm is slowly changing based on studies from Prisoner’s Dilemma game where cooperating can also lead to good outcomes. The typical case settling process just before a case goes on trial is a good example of reframing we talk about in appreciative intelligence.
Good lawyers are able to frame what they propose as a settlement in a positive way to the other party. There are two framing tasks in this situation. One, showing what is good in the proposed settlement. The second is the framing of how terrible the consequences might be if the proposal is not accepted. I am convinced that in contexts like this a lawyer needs more appreciative intelligence than “depreciative intelligence.”
I think people already have a good sense of the negative outcomes. What a client need is more help in seeing possibilities that were not discussed before but exist. That can happen only if the lawyer herself first reframes her interpretive schemes to accommodate all that can go wrong and right.
Thanks once again, Tojo, for your wisdom. You have given readers some good advice -- and some excellent reframing. I appreciate your time and have no doubt that this interview will get some people thinking, just as it will enlarge their perspectives.